The Reading Room
In The Reading Room with Plato
When recommending books that have been around for ages, it’s not uncommon to be faced with questions from skeptics. Why, they wonder, should I bother reading that old thing when there’s all this new stuff to read? I suspect there are two reasons for this. One might be that they fear the difficulty of getting through an older prose style – perhaps they remember reading Romeo and Juliet in High School, and finding it too much bother to understand the poetry when all they had to know to pass the quiz was the plot. Won’t reading Plato be like that? (Actually, no: the translation you’re likely to be reading was made in the 1970s or 80s.) The other is often a concern about “relevance.” How can the insights of long-dead Greek dudes be relevant to contemporary society? The aim of my posts for the Reading Room is to offer some answers to this question. We’ll begin with Plato and his relevance for contemporary discussion of Free Speech and Cancel Culture.
It’s hard to look through the news or social media and not see a lot of concern about celebrities or academics getting “cancelled” for having said the wrong thing or having offended some person or group. Plato actually got to watch his friend Socrates put on trial for just this sort of thing, and although he was given a chance to defend himself, it wasn’t really about who had the better argument but about which side could persuade the larger number. What did he say that was so offensive? Interestingly, Socrates infrequently made concrete assertions, but more frequently raised questions, inviting his interlocutors to think through the ramifications of what they thought they were sure of. Most of his fellow Athenians were convinced their society was better than others. He challenged that notion. Most of them thought they properly worshipped the gods. He challenged that notion. Most of them seemed to think they knew how to live good lives. He challenged that notion too. When confronted with serious questions about fundamental issues, some people’s reaction is to be fascinated, intrigued, thirsty for more dialogue. Other people feel uncomfortable or threatened, not just in terms of their self-image but also in terms of their status and privilege. So for making people think about this, Socrates was charged with impiety and with being a corrupting influence on the youth. Spoiler alert: he was sentenced to death.
It’s difficult not to see Socrates as a martyr to the concept of free expression. He was convinced that the path to wisdom and truth required conversation, which is why he went around the city trying to engage people in discussions. Plato’s response to the entirely-democratic decision to execute Socrates was also discursive: he started writing works of philosophical dialogue, presumably to recreate as much as possible the experience of listening to a conversation, and invite the reader to consider both sides of the argument. And he opened a school for philosophy, which was open to women and non-Athenians. (The most well-known non-Athenian to study with Plato was Aristotle, about whom more in a future entry.)
Plato compared the refusal to engage in discussion to people locked in a cave watching shadow puppets projected on the wall. Without discussion, they come to believe the shadows are all there is to reality, since that’s all they perceive, and there’s no reason to challenge those perceptions. Plato recounts the story in which Socrates, realizing he didn’t really know anything about virtue or justice or the gods, sent a query to the Oracle at the Temple of Apollo, seeking to know who was the wisest person, so that he might learn from this person. The Oracle’s reply, “you are,” Socrates quickly figured out meant that he, Socrates, was “wisest” in the sense of being aware of his ignorance, in contrast to most people, who think they have all the answers. If you know you lack wisdom, you’re much better situated to acquire it than if you assume you already have it. Hence the passion for engaging in discussions. How else can an individual learn and develop? Similarly, the entire society could be characterized as having a kind of smug superiority with respect to other Greek city-states. If they punish robust challenges to the way they order their affairs, how will they know they’re better, and how will they be able to change if they’re not? Plato’s defenses of Socrates, and of philosophy in general, show the value of open expression to both individual self-development and to the growth and development of society. That’s one clear area of “relevance.” In subsequent posts I’ll cover other areas, and other thinkers.